Monday, August 22, 2011

Asking and Answering Big Questions

One of the first things that really drew me to anthropology was that it asked really big questions about what human life is all about. I think I might have gone done the road to philosophy if I hadn’t liked my intro to anthropology professor a lot more than my philosophy one. Even though it’s been almost 20 years since my first anthropology class, I still get excited about those big questions. One of the biggies being, does God or the supernatural exist? Many, I think myself included, would say that social scientists cannot and have not business addressing that question. However, I recently ran across a book in which the authors claimed that social science was in a unique position to ask and answer that question.

I was skimming through a textbook on Science and Technology Studies (STS), Science, Technology and Society: A Sociological Approach (Bauchspies et al. 2006). During grad school, one of the book’s authors, Jennifer Croissant, was one of my most helpful and engaged committee members, so I had a good dose of STS in those days. Since graduation and getting a job that emphasizes teaching introductory anthropology classes, I haven’t delved too much into STS in awhile, so it was nice to reacquaint myself with the field. A re-introductory textbook was just what I needed. One passage in Chapter 3 really sparked my thinking. In setting the stage for sociological examinations of science, the authors deftly describe how the social sciences can potentially address one of the most basic existential questions--is there a God?

To illustrate how sociology can examine the practice of science, the authors employ the comparison to how social scientists have approached the examination of religion. No specific idea that was presented was new to me, but the authors assembled their argument in such an elegant way, that I had a distinct “whoa!” kind of moment. Because I really like the structure of this argument, most of this post consist of large block quotes with my brief commentary interspersed. I am not sure if I concur with their ultimate conclusion, but I admire the logic and boldness of their discussion.

In brief, the authors argue that the social sciences, through comparative analysis, provide a unique perspective on the basic reality of the content of religious belief--namely that God does not exist.

The idea fashionable in intellectual circles that only the physical and natural sciences can lead us to knowledge of God is curious in two ways. In the first place, this erases the realities and potentials of the social sciences as explanatory and discovery sciences. In the second place, while some of us might be able to mount an argument against the evidence of God based on evidence from the physical and natural sciences, it is interesting that in the public arena physical and natural scientists are most visible as God “provers.” [Bauchspies et al. 2006:55]

Here, the authors refuse to succumb to the idea that the social sciences are somehow “soft” and not quite “real” science. Instead, they posit that the social sciences offer some of the best evidence for the role of religion in society and for its ultimate, metaphysical reality. Also, they note how those who advocate the use of science to “prove” the existence of God rarely employ social scientific research, potentially because none supports the “provers’” claims.

Once social science as science is admitted into the arena of inquiry on gods and religion, order is rather quickly achieved without resorting to transcendental and supernatural notions, and without retreating to metaphysical agnosticisms. In recent decades, efforts to systematize and formalize the evidence on the social bases of gods and religions have been undertaken. It has been easier in recent years to find very good college textbooks on the sociology and anthropology of religion. It is still fairly common, however, to leave the question of whether there is or isn’t a God open to individual interpretation even while page after page the author destroys the foundations of believe. [Bauchspies et al. 2006:61-62]

In this passage, they state simply that social science has assembled a wealth of evidence about the patterned nature of religious systems and beliefs. Even with such a systematic examination of cross-cultural and cross-societal patterns, most social scientists will not adamantly advocate that their research actually casts serious doubt on the existence of God or any other aspect of the supernatural.

One of the most important tools we have for understanding and explaining our ways of living and thinking is the comparative method. Using the comparative method demonstrates that different types of societies generate different types of gods and religions. The nature and extend of the division of labor, the degree of social differentiation, the type of stratification system and social changes (within and across societies) are some of the factors that determine the moral order of a society. Religion is in fact just one way of systematizing, organizing, rationalizing and institutionalizing a moral order. All societies, all individuals, must have norms, values, and beliefs about right and wrong behavior, good and bad behavior. Most, if not all, societies have traditionally rationalized their moral order through some form of religion.[Bauchspies et al. 2006:55]

Religions and gods come in many varieties. It is this variety revealed by comparative analysis that can first provoke doubt among believers. This can lead to considering the possibility that religion is social, and not transcendental or supernatural. The forms that religions and gods take vary with variations in the division of labor, social differentiation and stratification, and political economy. Locality and culture give form to the gods. We find gods of war in warring societies, fertility gods dominating in agricultural societies, and gods or goddesses predominant in societies that are respectively male dominated or female dominated (or else egalitarian). Monotheism is associated with societies that have at least three levels of sovereignty (e.g. clan, city, empire). Class-dominated societies produce polytheism, the belief in multiple gods. Ancestor worship is associated with extended family structures, and reincarnation with intense face-to-face village communities. The conception of a Supreme Creator interested in human morality is rare among hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and fishing societies. The ideas is, on the other hand, common in agrarian and herding societies. Such correlations show up more or less clearly in historical perspective. But religious institutions, belief systems, and gods can mix in very intricate but still comprehensible ways in more complex societies. [Bauchspies et al. 2006:57]

I know this is a really long excerpt, but I think it’s key. The authors present a general overview of the basic historic patterns of interdigitated social and religious change. For several years, I’ve delivered a lecture with a very similar theme in my archaeology and prehistory classes. Once I’ve reached the development of complex societies, I spend some time talking about the ideological work involved in generating and maintaining social inequality, in which religion plays an important role. As political power becomes centralized around a smaller segment of a population, supernatural power becomes increasingly concentrated in more and more powerful divine entities.

In essence, sociological and anthropological case studies have shown that the theologies of specific religions vary along with the structure of the societies in which they’re found. Society is the independent variable and God the dependent.

And finally, the punchline of the argument. Even with the evidence cited above, many thinkers:

believe that there is no way to prove or disprove religion or God. Or perhaps you believe that because religion is a matter of faith--and individual faith at that--God and religion are outside the bounds of scientific explanation. This and similar ideas are so powerful that even critics and theorists of religion as a-social phenomenon are still hedging their bets. While undermining all possibility of reasonable grounds for believing in God, many writers caution that no matter the strength of their criticisms or arguments, believers really have no reason to alter their beliefs or practices. We are not adopting that line here. It is our contention that in our intellectual community we know there is no God with the same tentativeness and corrigibility that accompanies our critical certainty that the earth is not flat. [Bauchspies et al. 2006:55]

I really do appreciate the intellectual bravery of the final statement, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. I agree, that much of the sociological and anthropological literature on religion makes it clear that the social shapes the supernatural, which strongly suggests that humans make God and not the other way around. I would also agree, as they note, that most scientists, social or otherwise, are wary about directly challenging the beliefs of religious folks. I’ve heard it and said it many times myself, “while the data suggest this, science has no ability to address the reality or unreality of the supernatural...blah, blah, blah.”

In what ways do I disagree with the authors, or why am I and other so afraid of making such statements? For myself, it largely stems from not wanting to alienate religious students in my classes. It may also have something to do with a deep down fear that I’m making God angry with such statements.

In light of the passages above, it’s interesting that the most heated debates between “science and religion” are about biological evolution, which on its surface, has no bearing on religion at all, while social scientific studies directly address it. I guess it has to do with the perceived “softness” of social science and that many just don’t take its findings seriously. The natural sciences have an ideological power that, in my experience, social sciences have never been able to match.

I have no real conclusion here. I wanted to highlight and think a bit about the quotes above because of the fascinating questions raised. But also, I like them because they remind me that social science can be provocative, exciting and even a little dangerous.

References Cited
Bauchspies, Wenda, Jennifer Croissant and Sal P. Restivo
2006 Science, Technology, and Society: a Sociological Approach. Wiley-Blackwell.


  1. From the passages you cite,I find it unfortunate that the authors of the textbook seem to focus on "belief in God" as a kind of True-False proposition. I think this is overly positivistic and literal--and hence more scientific or "scientistic?" There is so much to say and think about religion beyond whether theistic belief can be "proven" or not. I find it more interesting to consider religion as a special subset of culture, the subculture of the sacred. I don't think religion can be proven or disproven any more than language, art or culture could be subjected to proof and disproof. Of people who claim to "believe in" a god or gods or someone/thing of the sort, they have many different ways of perceiving and constructing their "belief." I think religion is best understood as a kind of art form. Even ethics and morality could be interpreted in a somewhat aesthetic manner, as a way of giving style and coherence to life. Anyway, good blog and interesting questions!

  2. I definitely see your point. I probably excised these quotes in a bit of a misleading way. One of the major thrusts of STS is that science itself is a "subset of culture" and almost a kind of "art form."

    More directly, I tend to agree that the reality of the supernatural (or whatever term can adequately cover the content of religious beliefs) isn't subject to proof. But the appealing thing I found about these passages was the commitment to a clear conclusion (I do like alliteration). I think that appeal stems from living in a time when the sides of debates that I often find myself on are fraught with ambiguity, sometimes to the point of surrender. Here, I'm thinking both of the "debates" about evolution and creationism, but also to American political debates where the right is clear, though in my mind wrong, while the politicians to the left hem and haw until they capitulate to the right. The passages cited in my post have an argument, offer support and offer a clear conclusion.